SXSW Film review: ‘Tab Hunter’ takes us inside ’50s closet

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In 2013, Jeffrey Schwarz was here at SXSW with his terrific film “I Am Divine.” He triumphantly returns this year with a look at another gay icon in “Tab Hunter Confidential.” Tab’s memoir of the same name from a decade ago served as the jumping off point for creating this documentary, which was produced by his longtime partner Allan Glaser.

Of course, Divine and Tab Hunter’s lives first intersected in the 1981 John Waters film “Polyester.” At that time, his career was on the decline and the film gave him a burst of creative energy and earned him fame with a new generation. At the height of his career in the 1950s, he was a handsome guy who exuded “youthful American masculinity” according to one interview subject in the film. He was not only a movie star, but he also hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with singles like “Young Love.”


Schwarz sits down for extensive on-camera interviews with Hunter, who tends to answer everything even when he’s clearly a little uncomfortable. Although he is 83 and has been in a long-term relationship for more than 30 years (and been an out gay man since his autobiography was published), he clearly cherishes his privacy and isn’t always enthusiastic about dishing intimate details. Like many gay people, he admits, “I didn’t want my sexuality to define who I was.”


He does reveal that tabloid rumors about his homosexuality were squashed, at least partially, because he was under contract at Warner Bros. Studios. In those days, the Hollywood press would keep a secret as long as doing so was made worth their while. It wasn’t until he was a “free agent” and there was no one to protect him that accusations in the tabloid culture became unstoppable. By that point, he had already been in a relationship with figure skater Ronnie Robertson and “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins. In the public eye, he was often paired with his co-stars like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds to be photographed in movie magazines.


Reynolds is interviewed here, as is Natalie’s former husband Robert Wagner. George Takei, film critic Rex Reed, Clint Eastwood and Connie Stevens are also featured talking about Tab’s career along with a few hardcore fans of his work, including a very sweet woman named Jo-Ann Cox who had won a date with him in a movie magazine contest back in 1956. The format is fast and furious, featuring talking head interviews interspersed with archival photos, home movies, and a host of television and movie clips that are cleverly edited alongside the comments.


“I Am Divine” was a well-crafted documentary, but “Tab Hunter Confidential” can’t help but improve upon it due to the simple fact that the subject of this film is still with us and willing to tell his story on camera. It’s an invaluable document about closeted Hollywood history and a delightful tribute to a talented man who lived to tell his tale of survival.


“Tab Hunter Confidential” screens again on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. at the Alamo South Lamar.

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